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How John Paul Became John Paul Jones

Busting the Willie Jones Legend (continued)



Blame it on Mr. Buell

willie jones of north carolinaIn debunking the Willie Jones myth, Samuel Eliot Morison and other historians point to the fact that Willie Jones was not wed to his wife Mary and did not live in the "The Grove" in North Carolina because it was not even built until 10 years after John Paul Jones was reportedly there. Scholars generally agree that John Paul changed his name to John Jones upon his arrival in America or before.  Morison offers a step-by-step explanation as to how the Willie Jones myth evolved.


As movers and shakers in the American Revolution, Willie and John Paul may certainly have met, Morison says. Anything is possible. But there is nothing to document the North Carolina claim, other than hearsay and family gossip, while all the facts indicate that the story is simply wishful thinking. Everybody wants to be related to a hero. Having corresponded with dozens of Jones family members who believe they are blood relatives of the famous captain, I'm inclined to agree with America's foremost scholars.

One of the most enthusiastic supporters of the Willie Jones story was Augustus C. Buell. My readers may recall his name from a previous article here. Buell published his two-volume biography of John Paul Jones in 1900. It was immediately attacked by experts as fraudulent. Buell was exposed in the New York Times for faking his sources and attacked by historians as "one of the most villainous practitioners of the hoax, documentary forgery, and the big lie." Buell not only made up facts, but he invented footnotes to letters and books to support his lies.  Buell died in 1904. When the body of John Paul Jones was discovered under the streets of Paris one year later, Buell's fraudulent biography went back on the bestseller list. When Jones' corpse was shipped to Annapolis, MD and installed in an ornate tomb, even President Teddy Roosevelt and the officers of the United States Navy were quoting Buell.

It was Buell who perpetuated the legend that the first American flag was created by a group of patriotic Portsmouth girls who sewed the Ranger flag from their petticoats. Buell even made up the names of the young ladies in the quilting party to make it sound realistic. But they never existed. And yet a plaque relating this great historic event in 1913 was attached to the side of the John Paul Jones House in Portsmouth. It is there still.

Weeds thrive online. A quick tour of the Internet shows that the Willie Jones legend is alive and well. One popular home schooling site has even reprinted portions of Buell's 1900 biography online as "proof" that the story is true. So beware of facts quoted on the Internet. And watch out for facts embossed on brass plaques and carved in stone monuments. Question what you read in books and newspapers. And dare I say, take the colorful tales your grandparents tell with a good-sized grain of salt.


KEY SOURCES: "The Willie Jones-John Paul Jones Tradition," by Samuel Eliot Morison, William & Mary Quarterly, April 1959 and John Paul Jones & His Ancestry, by William R. Jones, 1927.

Copyright © 2013 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER, available on and in local stores.

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